Joy To The Modes
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
1w ago
The best way to teach the diatonic modes is to compare them to each other in parallel. One way to do that is to just run up and down them scalewise, but that isn’t very musically satisfying. So I thought, how about putting a familiar melody into all the modes? I wanted one that touches every note in the diatonic scale, and that fits within one octave. “Joy To The World” fit the bill perfectly. I am not the first person to have this idea, but I think I did a better job. I used beats from INXS and the Meters. Music Theory Songs by Ethan Hein I present the modes in circle of fifths order, from ..read more
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Understanding intervals
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
1w ago
There are two ways to understand intervals: the right way, and the way I learned them. Before we get into that, let me point you to some good resources for learning the right way. I like the online tutorials by Robert Hutchinson, Chelsey Hamm and Bryn Hughes, musictheory.net and musicca.com. I really love Nate May’s visual approach. And if you like learning from videos (which I don’t), this one by Saher Galt is good. I find it most helpful to visualize the intervallic structure of the diatonic scale on a circle, and if you like to think that way too, try the aQWERTYon. I am an aural lear ..read more
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What is voice leading?
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
1w ago
Sit down at the piano and play the chords C and F in root position, back and forth, like so: (C E G) to (F A C). Pretty clunky! Now invert the C chord; that is, move the bottom note up an octave. Alternate that version of the C chord with the F chord, like so: (E G C) to (F A C). It sounds smoother! You just experienced the magic of voice leading. To understand how voice leading works, imagine that each note in a chord is being sung by a different person. For three-note chords, you will need three people. Let’s call them David Crosby, Steven Stills and Graham Nash. (In the photo, they’re sitti ..read more
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What is syncopation?
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
2w ago
(Meta-level note: I rewrite this explainer every few years and now that I have a couple of new music theory gigs, I am rewriting it yet again.) Syncopation is to rhythm what dissonance is to harmony: conflict, surprise, defiance of expectation. If you place your rhythmic accents where listeners expect them, then the music gets boring fast. If you place them where listeners don’t expect them, that’s where the fun starts. To understand syncopation, you need to understand the concept of strong and weak beats (and subdivisions of beats). The strong beats (and subdivisions) are where you expect ac ..read more
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The major key universe
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
2w ago
Minor keys are complicated, because there are so many different minor scales. Major keys seem simpler, because there is only the one major scale. At least, that is how things worked in Western Europe between 1700 and 1900. In present-day Anglo-American pop, though, we need to expand our idea of what a major key is. It’s very common for major-key songs to use notes and chords from outside the major scale. The most common of these is the flatted seventh scale degree and the corresponding bVII chord. These are omnipresent features of any music descended from the blues. The usual explanation is t ..read more
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The bottom number in time signatures has always confused me
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
3w ago
The top number in a time signature is easy to understand. Is the song in four? Count “one, two, three, four.” Is it in three? Count “one, two, three.” Is it in five? Count “one, two, three, four, five.” That’s all there is to it. However, the bottom number is another story. What is going on down there? I collected various examples of time signatures in this track I made, but I didn’t understand why “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel is in 7/4 but “One More Night” by Can is in 7/8. I’m not alone in finding this confusing. My students struggle with it too. They are right to! Every explanation I h ..read more
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Happiness is a Warm Gun
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
1M ago
The White Album is full of cobwebby subterranean corners, and this song is one of the cobwebbiest. The title comes from an issue of American Rifleman that John Lennon thought was funny in a bleak way. The joke became quite a bit more bleak after his death. You can listen to the isolated tracks here. This is probably the most formally complex Beatles song unless you count the Abbey Road medley as a single work of music. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a miniature medley unto itself, since John stitched it together from several unfinished fragments. It took a lot of in-studio rehearsal to pull it ..read more
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What are harmonics?
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
1M ago
For our last day of pop aural skills class, I did a crash course on historical tuning systems. This involved a brief introduction to harmonics. As I was talking, I realized that my verbal explanation of this concept is still clunky and imprecise. This is a problem, because harmonics are important, not just for music theory, but also for audio engineering, as well as many non-music-related subfields in physics. Including quantum mechanics!  The easiest way to understand harmonics is to use a guitar. Sit in a quiet place and play the low E string. Don’t twang it so hard that it snaps again ..read more
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Hypermeter
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
2M ago
I didn’t find out about hypermeter until very late in my music theory learning journey. I think it should be part of the basic toolkit, especially for songwriters and improvisers. The explanation that follows might seem abstract, but behind the scenes, hypermeter provides the signposts that orient you in medium-scale musical time. The term “hypermeter” might be new to you if you aren’t a musicologist, but I guarantee that you already intuitively know what it is. When you feel that a verse or chorus has a front half or a back half, that you can or can’t expect when the next section is going to ..read more
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Identifying augmented chords
The Ethan Hein Blog » Music Theory
by Ethan
2M ago
Augmented chords don’t come up much, but they are on the aural skills syllabus, and they have that specific quality that no other harmony can create. Their uncanny zero-gravity quality is the result of their symmetry. Any note in an augmented triad could function as its root. When you write the augmented chords on the chromatic circle, you quickly discover that there are only four possible ones, shown in the image below. The one on the top left is C+, E+ and G#+/Ab+. The one on the top right is C#+/Db+, F+ and A+. The one on the bottom right is D+, F#/Gb+ and A#/Bb+. Finally, the one on the b ..read more
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